Thoughts on "Earthrise"

December 24, 2016 at 7:05 am by Frank White

For many of us, Christmas Eve has always been a very special time, either because of our spiritual path or because it is a time for celebration and gift-giving.

For those of us enanomored with space exploration and its impact on human consciousness, this day has taken on new meaning: it marks the moment when we saw our home world in a radically different way, as a planet "rising" above another celestial body---the moon. The impact of that moment in the history of the Overview Effect, now close to 50 years ago, cannot be overemphasized.

For Americans, 1968 had been a terrible year. It began with a bloody turning point in the Vietnam war, known as the Tet Offensive. In January, the guerrilla fighters of the National Liberation Front (aka Viet Cong) had staged a surprise uprising throughout South Vietnam that included Viet Cong running through the halls of the American Embassy in Saigon. We had been told repeatedly that the US was winning the war, but the Tet Offensive suggested, in dramatic fashion, otherwise.

 For those of us who had opposed the war, this was a sad vindication that it was probably not winnable by the South Vietnamese, even with an enormous American troop presence. Many of us rallied to the cause of Eugene McCarthy, an antiwar senator from Minnesota, who ran against President Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary. Eventually, Johnson saw the light, announced he would not run again for the presidency, and opened negotiations with the North Vietnamese and NLF in Paris.

In the meantime, though, we had to endure additional shocks with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, the great advocate of non-violence and civil rights, and Robert Kennedy, who had entered the race for the presidency. After the King shooting in April, major cities in the US were convulsed by riots, and troops were sent in to quell the violence. Our nation was fighting a two-front war, and we seemed to be losing. The loss of Bobby Kennedy added to the grief we had felt when his brother had been assassinated in 1963.

Then came Apollo 8. One of the reasons this Apollo mission had such an impact was that it came, like many events in 1968, as a surprise. Apollo 8 was not originally intended to travel to the moon, but NASA feared the Soviet Union were planning a crewed mission that would go, and decided at the last minute to preempt their rivals. Instead of being an orbital mission designed to safely test out components needed for a moon landing, Apollo 8 left Earth orbit and headed out to circle our satellite, the first crewed mission to travel so far.

The "Earthrise" photo was not the first "Overview Effect moment" on the voyage. The initial shocking action of the three astronauts was to turn their cameras around when they were on their way out  and show us the whole Earth.

I remember the moment well. I was in London, staying at the home of friends, and we were watching television when it happened. Given how the year had played out, we were not in a festive mood, even though it was almost Christmas. When the astronauts showed us the Earth from a distance, we really didn't know what to say. I have interviewed many astronauts since then about their experiences, and I believe I felt something like they describe when they first see the planet from orbit, on the way to the moon, or from the lunar surface.

Since you have no reference point, no comparable experience with which to compare this one, you have no words for it at the time. Only later are you able to describe it. That seems to have been true of the astronauts, and it has certainly been the case for me.

Then, on Christmas Eve, there was Earthrise, not only the photo and video of it but also the reading of Genesis by the astronauts as they rounded the moon. For the first time in a lng while, I began to feel some hope for my country, my species, my planet. I wrote quite a lot about Apollo 8 in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

As I discuss in the book, from an Overview Effect perspective, the key to Apollo 8 is that it was the first time humans had seen the Whole Earth and shared that view with everyone on the planet. And there is a significant difference between seeing the Earth from orbit and seeing it from a greater distance.

I have also written a lot about this mission and the other Apollo missions in The New Camelot: the Quest for the Overview Effect, soon to be published by Apogee Books. This book portrays our Apollo astronauts as similar to the Knights of the Round Table, with the "holy grail" of our time being the Overview Effect.

Finally, the "Overview" film produced by Planetary Collective focuses its opening comments on Apollo 8 and Earthrise. It is only 19 minutes long and well worth watching:

So 2016 has been another difficult year, not only for the United States but for the world. Never have we needed the Overview Effect perspective more than we do today. Never have we needed to apply Overivew thinking to planetary problems more than we do today.

I hope you will join me and my colleagues at the Overview Institute (  in the great effort to "bring the Overview Effect down to Earth" and make a difference in the lives of billions of people and all the sentient beings who are members of the crew of Spaceship Earth.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year!

Copyright, Frank White, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, AIAA, 2014, www.